Mattis presses European allies on defence spending

US Secretary of Defence James Mattis arriving for a meeting at the Nato headquarters in Brussels yesterday.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis arriving for a meeting at the Nato headquarters in Brussels yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BRUSSELS • US Secretary of Defence James Mattis pressed European allies at a meeting in Nato headquarters yesterday to stick to a promise to increase military budgets as the United States offers an increase in its own defence spending in Europe.

For the first time, Nato countries have submitted plans to show how they will reach a target to spend 2 per cent of economic output on defence every year by 2024, after Mr Trump threatened to withdraw US support for low-spending allies.

Fifteen of the 28 countries, excluding the US, now have a strategy to meet a Nato benchmark first agreed in 2014 in response to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region, following years of cuts to European defence budgets.

It is unclear whether that will be enough to impress US President Donald Trump when he attends a Nato summit in July.

"We cannot outsource Europe's security obligations to the United States," British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told reporters.

While France plans to increase defence spending by more than a third between 2017 and 2025, Spain has said it will not meet the 2024 target, while Belgium and Italy are also lagging.

A multibillion-euro projected increase in Germany will not be enough to take Berlin up to 2 per cent by 2024.

The issue of low defence spending in Europe has long been an irritant in Washington.

But Russia's military modernisation, Islamist militancy and electronic warfare on computer networks have underscored Europe's heavy reliance on the US.

According to Nato data, Britain, Greece, Romania and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania meet, or are close to, the 2 per cent goal.

France and Turkey are among those countries set to reach it soon. One area of tension lies in the language of the Nato spending pledge of 2014. Allies committed to "move towards" 2 per cent, while Mr Trump now says 2 per cent is the "bare minimum".

Mr Trump has also set an example by proposing a US$1.7 billion (S$2.3 billion) increase in military expenditure in Europe for next year, as the US leads Nato efforts to deter Russia.

But US officials have also sown confusion about their support for a new defence pact to coordinate European Union defence policy and allow countries to club together to buy arms.

Ms Katie Wheelbarger, principal US deputy assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, warned that "we don't want to see EU efforts pulling requirements or activity away from Nato and into the EU".

US envoy to Nato Kay Bailey Hutchison said: "We do not want this to be a protectionist vehicle for the EU."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline 'Mattis presses European allies on defence spending'. Print Edition | Subscribe